Day 17 – Thu 12 May 2005 – A Day in Edinburgh

Dan M was very complimentary about Edinburgh (and Scotland in general) and I can see why. Edinburgh is an impressive and intelligent city; almost a model for how to integrate enormous heritage value with modern functionality.

Edinburgh Castle dominates the city

It’s dominated by the castle in a way that Sydney is dominated by its harbour (or that Townsville is dominated by its Castle Hill). But, more than that, its setting near the Firth of Forth and glacially modified volcanic formations like Arthur’s Seat, make it a memorable natural location in its own right.

It’s difficult to describe Edinburgh without lapsing into tedious superlatives. The ‘old town’ is everything you would expect of a historical city: the cobbled streets, the delightful olf buildings, the random layout, the tiny closes and laneways, and all surmounted by the evocative castle watching over them.

An Edinburgh street scene

The old town is very ‘vertical’ in two ways. First it is  built on a tall volcanic plug with a sloping ‘tail’ left in place on one side after the surrounding country was gouged away by glaciers. As a result the streets are very steep and connected by long staircases. You get very fit just from walking around. Second, the buildings, though very old, are quite tall; five to six stories is normal, 10 to 12 is not unknown. In the ‘new town’ across Princes Park (once a Loch) at the base of the Castle Rock, the layout is a regular pattern on fairly flat ground – much easier to navigate, but somehow not nearly as interesting.

The castle esplande (venue of the Tattoo)

I spent much of the day looking at the castle itself. It’s quite large and complex, with a long and interesting history reflected in its layers of construction. I was surprised at how small the esplanade is where they conduct the Tattoo. It really is quite tiny and sloped back down distinctly from the castle gate. At each side (where the stands would be located for the Tattoo audience) it drops away very sharply (almost cliff like) to the town and park areas below. When the stands are up, the back rows must have an awful drop behind them.

The castle gate

Going through the gate you follow a roadway to the right up to the Portcullis gate. This area forms the lower ward of the castle. 70 steps lead up to the left to the middle ward which dates from the 15th century. Originally it was a service area with blacksmithing works and the like. The middle wards current defences were developed around the 17th century after the Jacobite uprisings. it had embrasures for numerous heavy guns. A one o’clock time signal gun (a modern 105mm howitzer) is fired from the middle ward. It’s much louder than people expect and it was fun to watch so many of them startle.

Looking down from the middle ward (1 o’clock gun at mid-left)

The views across the city and the hinterland are absolutely panoramic – an ideal defensive position if ever there was one. Apparently it was occupied quite early. the original Scots tribes observed Roman Legions marching north from there.

Looking across to the Firth of Forth

In the top area is the Royal Scots Barracks (still in use) and Museum, the National war Museum of Scotland, the royal apartments (including the room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to King James), the Great Hall (with a huge medieval carved timber ceiling and a vast collection of arms and armour mounted around the walls), the Scottish War memorial, preserved cells used to imprison French and American combatants, and St Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest part of the castle, dating from around 1250). Outside is the massive World War 1 Mons Meg cannon.

How would you like to climb these service ladders?

Not surprisingly the place was full of tourists, mostly Americans and eastern Europeans. The Americans are funny: they have to keep touching everything, just to reassure themselves that it’s real and not some massive movie set.

Princes Park in magnificent afternoon light

Saw much more of the Scots in the ‘new town’. Not so sure about them yet. There seem to be two types; some are very professional looking (very well dressed, like barristers or surgeons), while others look like archetypal soccer hooligans. Unlike the Irish, the Scots do seem to swear a lot and the young guys can be a bit yobbo-like. On balance I think Edinburgh is a magnificent place to visit, but I’d still rather live in Dublin.

More of Princes Park with the castle above

I’m staying in the Grassmarket area (yes, that’s its real name), which is just below the castle on the south side of the ‘old town’. It’s a bit noisy at night, with bands playing at local venues, but otherwise quite OK. The staff seem mostly to be Polish. It’s quite cheap at only 30 GBP a night, plus a few pounds for breakfast. I can’t get accommodation for the Saturday night, so I’ll have to try my luck back in London for the last week.

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